It is the 13th of January 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
So, I don’t know you- listener, in particular, sure, maybe you’re a friend of mine or my wife or sister or some such, but generally, I don’t know what church looks like for you, and I kind of like how we all have different traditions.
So- let me ask you: when it comes to Sunday worship, or service, or Mass, or Divine Service, how much does singing play a part in that? I don’t think I’m incorrect in emphasizing how much singing plays a part in our weekly worship.
But what if I told you that singing, in the vernacular (or common language), was only made common in the church some 500 and 20 years ago, with the first hymnal published in Bohemia, in the vernacular on this the 13th of January in 1501.
The hymnal was printed at the behest of Bishop Luke of Prague, and many of the hymns were written by Jan Hus. You may not know Luke of Prague, but perhaps you know Jan Hus. He was called Hus after the town of his birth, “Husinec” which is translated as “Goose town.” You might know that Martin Luther referred to him as “the goose that was killed by the papacy” because of Jan’s martyrdom at the Council of Constance in the early 1400s.
The Bohemian Reformation- over a hundred years before the larger European Reformation was not the same, but it shared some of its populist energy- stressing the vernacular within preaching and singing and in getting the Scriptures to the people in the language they could read.
Hus has a connection to the Wycliffites- or “Lollards” in England. You might know the name Wycliffe and associate it with Bible transitions (today, the Wycliffe society is a translation society). In the late 1300s, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was also the King of Bohemia, was married to Anne, the daughter of England’s Richard II. Furthermore, Henry was something of an apocalyptic figure, seeing the corruption in the church as a sign of the end of the age. Hus could preach and teach what would later have him killed, but for a time, safely under the Bohemian king.
Hus was a conciliarist- that is, he saw the councils as superior to the Pope. He wasn’t anti-Pope per-se but thought they could err, and when they did, the councils of church leaders could correct them. He, like Wycliffe and his English counterparts, wanted the Bible in the vernacular.
But the two most practical reforms Hus called for were the return of parishioners getting both wine and bread in communion and the singing of hymns in the vernacular.
We will leave the Communion reforms for another time, and essentially, it was taught that if the bread were actually transformed into the body, it would, by definition, contain blood in it.
Hus was critical of the church service not engaging the people- he said of the priests, singing Latin behind a screen, “grinds his words without using his lips or teeth and they seem as the sound of a millstone, tr, tr, tr…” And so not only would Hus preach to the people in their common tongue he would insist that the congregation sing- in the west the singing had long been consigned to the priest or professional choir and the hymns would be, like scripture, in Latin.
Hus, like Reformers a century, later would take tunes known by the populace, or at least easy-to-teach tunes. It was the followers of Hus- known as the Unitas Fratrem or “United Brethren” (real fast- you’re gonna sing in the vernacular but give yourself a Latin name?).
Among the songs published in this Hymnal on this day in 1501 would be one picked up by Martin Luther and translated into English as Jesus Christ Our Blessed Savior- we will hear from it in the last word.
Sure, Christians have sung in hymns and psalms since the beginning. Still, a long period of professional singing in Latin- a passive Medieval experience, started to come to an end with the publishing of the first of many hymnals with popular, vernacular hymns- the first in Bohemia published on this day in 1501.
The last word for today comes from that hymn- from Jan Hus and in the first hymnal:
Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior,
turned away God's wrath forever;
by his bitter grief and woe
he saved us from the evil foe.
As his pledge of love undying,
he, this precious food supplying,
gives his body with the bread
and with the wine the blood he shed.
Praise the Father, who from heaven
unto us such food has given
and, to mend what we have done,
gave into death his only Son.
If your heart this truth professes
and your mouth your sin confesses,
surely you will be his guest
and at his banquet ever blest.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 13th of January 2023 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who knows that goose is female geese while the males are called gander. And both go great with some citrus and rosemary- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man still in Arkansas, two more days- a place called Bentonville…ask me about it sometime. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.